… make no mistake, the SDLP, an Irish Nationalist Party, desperately wants a better Northern Ireland. We want to see a North which is attractive to business: a North that takes care of its sick and gives dignity and respect to its older citizens. A North which is safe and a great place to work and to raise a family.
It was back to their campaign’s central message of uniting people and building prosperity. Party leader, Margaret Ritchie went on to say:
I’m not here today to criticise others, but you are free to contrast the SDLP record on uniting people with that of those who gave you the OFMDFM Cohesion Sharing and Integration Strategy. Ask any of the churches or NGOs or anyone who is serious about bringing this community together what they really thought of it. Sooner or later this inadequate strategy will have to be completely rewritten.
And outside of Government we have led the way. We have shown our respect and readiness to embrace and represent all traditions. And when presented with the chance to wave flags and use symbols to advance the narrow perspective of our own tradition only or follow the path of reconciliation – we will always choose the latter course – even though it is more difficult.
She was critical of this year’s budget:
The Executive Budget was as we said at the time, lazy and unimaginative. It still is. I’m not here today to criticise others but you are free to contrast the SDLP record on building prosperity with the contribution of those who devised the Executive Budget. Ask any of the economists or businesspeople who care passionately about rebalancing our economy what they really thought of it. Sooner or later this inadequate budget will have to be re-written.
The SDLP’s manifesto [link added now the document’s been tracked down on the SDLP website] stretches to more than 50 pages, and is peppered with paragraphs in Irish. Like most of the local manifestos, some ideas are shared with other parties.
- Establish a single Department of the Economy was included in Alliance’s magnum opus.
- Invest in a major programme of home insulation – a bit like the Green Party.
An additional 16,000 jobs are promised over 3 years: 7,000 via Green New Deal; 3,300 in agri-food sector; 2,200 through tourism; 2,000 by growing ICT; and 1,500 jobs in shovel-ready building projects.
Investment in early years is included in the Tackling Underachievement section.
The SDLP’s opposition to the current flawed Budget was based on the disregard the Budget’s authors have shown towards the most vulnerable in society, including our children … We will ensure full implementation of an integrated, long-term 0-6 years strategy which recognises that early childhood care and education are the right of all children and the basis of human development. Getting the implementation of this strategy right will be crucial to the social, economic and emotional wellbeing of our society in the future.
The SDLP will “continue to oppose any increase in university fees” and “urge the other parties in the Executive to resist and reject it too”.
Previous manifesto concerns around the role and accountability of MI5 are repeated.
Over one year into devolution, critical issues around the role of MI5 and the Serious Organised Crime Agency remain with London. It will build confidence if all those agencies are accountable to the Justice Minister, the Department of Justice, the Assembly Justice Committee and the PSNI. Defeating the dissident threat must be through modern and accountable intelligence techniques, ensuring intelligence primacy is taken from MI5 and transferred to the PSNI, and through all-Ireland security cooperation and action.
Amongst the pledges and ideas, there is some consideration that the SDLP alone cannot achieve all their goals.
First-class public services will require significant investment as well as reform. The SDLP will provide political leadership to undertake a review, but consensus will be vital for the success of such a project.
The decentralisation of public sector jobs – “restoring the Bain decentralisation initiative also abandoned by DUP and Sinn Féin” – is on the SDLP agenda, “relocating 2,000 public sector jobs across the North over the next three years”.
The SDLP “will strive for ambitious, legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of 40% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, to be met through a Northern Ireland Climate Change Act. The financial, environmental and social cost of not doing so is simply too huge.”
While there’s reference to the budget’s allocation of “around £200 million capital investment for public transport versus almost £1.2 billion for roads”, the SDLP’s desire to work “towards a more balanced distribution of spending on our roads and our public transport systems” is not quantified.
On the subject of libraries, the manifesto points out that “the SDLP was the only party on the Belfast Education and Library Board to oppose library closures”. Did they mean the Libraries NI Board? Looking forward, the SDLP plan “to challenge the department’s proposals aimed at destroying the local library, in both our towns and countryside … We will work to secure a commitment from the next minister and the Executive to keep our local libraries and keep much needed jobs.”
The SDLP propose “cutting the number of MLAs from 108 to 96 by the time of the next election, with a further reduction negotiable after 2015”, disaggregate OFMDFM reallocating many of its functions to other departments, and support “reinforcing the joint nature of OFMDFM by changing titles to ‘Joint First Ministers’”.
In a report on Wednesday evening’s news, Margaret Ritchie said
“Tell me one thing the deputy First Minister cannot do that the First Minister can do?”
The obvious answer is that the FM can walk straight from his office into Executive meetings using the adjoining door while DFM can’t!
The last observation that talking about unification is a big issue for both Sinn Féin and the SDLP in their 2011 campaigns.
During the next mandate, we will seek a referendum on a United Ireland, for which the SDLP will campaign vigorously in favour of a ‘yes’ vote …
- the Assembly would continue, as a regional parliament of a United Ireland with all its cross-community protections
- the Executive would be kept, bringing together all political parties
- all the Agreement’s equality and human rights protections, including the Bill of Rights, would still be guaranteed
- the right to identify oneself as British or Irish, or both, and hold British or Irish passports would endure
- East-West cooperation would continue. In particular, just as the Irish Government has a say in the North now, the British Government would have a say in the North in a United Ireland
- those in the North who want it, should have representation in the House of Lords in a United Ireland.
This is a bit of a step up from the 2007 manifesto which stated:
Engage in outreach with the unionist community to persuade them of the benefits of a United Ireland and reassure them of the protections that the Agreement offers them in it; and
Seek a referendum on a United Ireland when the Agreement’s institutions are operating stably and campaign vigorously for a yes vote.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.